music morsels indie music May 2007

CROSSROADS - Starcastle guitarists Matt Stewart and Bruce Botts
by Mark E. Waterbury


A band making a comeback can often find more hurdles to jump even if they originally enjoyed a steady popularity. The musical climate can change, and if the hiatus is particularly long, who knows what may happen to their fan base. Starcastle was a band that experienced solid success in the 70’s. Although not as commercial leaning as their peers such as Yes and Kansas, they had garnered a healthy amount of respect for their musical prowess and were considered by many to be one of the architects of progressive rock. Like many bands of that era, Starcastle was shot down by the double barreled blast of disco and punk in the 80’s. The next two decades would see several unsuccessful attempts at reunions. Finally, a number of original members decided it was time to record a new album. Although it took near a decade to complete, a time frame which included the tragic loss of one of the band’s founders, Starcastle now has a new album, a prestigious reunion show approaching, and a chance to not only rekindle their former fan base, but to cultivate new fans as well.

Champaign, Illinois is best known in music circles as the breeding ground for popular 70’s rock band REO Speedwagon. Some people may not realize that before Kevin Cronin took over the mic for REO, their first album featured the vocals of one Terry Luttrell. Terry also performed in a band called Sea Daddy with guitarist Matt Stewart. Champaign was also the home to Mad John Fever, a band featuring guitarist Steve Hagler, bassist Gary Strater, drummer Steve Tassler. and keyboardist Herb Schildt. The six musicians combined forces, and after originally calling themselves Pegasus, they threw a bunch of potential band names in a hat, and pulled out the name Starcastle. “We found out right away that the sound we wanted was pretty much there,”  Matt recalls. “When Terry and I joined, we all felt it really clicked, and it would keep clicking for several years and albums.” Although some people knew of the musicians from their work with previous bands, Starcastle set out to bring their name to the forefront. They worked on recording songs for their first album, and some of the demos managed to garner interest from local and regional radio stations who began spinning them. Primarily, Starcastle began spreading the word with their live performances. “We got out and played everywhere we could,” Matt remembers. “In those days, everyone was just playing tons of places and it was a great time to do that. You really got to see what was on the horizon for your band, and as you toured, it kept getting a little better as you went.”

Starcastle continued to tour extensively, eventually gaining inroads opening for popular artists including The Guess Who, Elvin Bishop, and Roxy Music among others. Through further connections, the band’s manager convinced the head of CBS Records A&R department Steve Popvitch to come out and catch a show at a Midwestern watering hole. “They always say it is all about connections,” Matt notes. “When the guy from CBS came out he was standing in the corner asking people what they thought of us, and they said they liked us. Not too long after that we had the recording deal, but it took a long time to get to that point. It was about a year and a half of constant touring and playing everywhere we could. We would get in a van and you name it, we probably played there.”

With CBS releasing their first self-titled album in early 1976, Starcastle's airplay covered the U.S. and Canada with heavy rotation. Of course, a hectic tour schedule followed, and CBS was happy enough with the sales and the tour to release their second album "Fountains of Light" which is considered by many fans to be their best recording. The band went on a headlining tour, supported at some shows by the then relatively unknown Journey and Foreigner. Despite solid sales, disco and punk were starting to worm their way into the market, putting pressure on Starcastle who refused to compromise their artistic integrity. Following their third album “Citadel,” Starcastle would record their fourth and final CBS album “Reel To Reel,” which had many of the original songs rejected by CBS, causing disillusionment among the band members. Terry Lutrell left the band just about the time they were dropped by CBS in 1979. Over the next few years, the band tried to soldier on with various line up changes and in various locales, including Atlanta for awhile.  By the early 80’s, it started to seem as though Starcastle's run was over. “Most bands playing our type of music were going through tough times because the labels had turned their attention elsewhere,” Matt recalls. “We didn’t like the fact that our fourth album ended up being more commercial. We did try keeping it going when we were in Atlanta and we were playing everywhere we could down there as well. But it just didn’t seem to be going as good as we could be, so we broke up.”

Over the next decade, Gary Strater in particular tried to instigate Starcastle reunions from his new base in San Francisco. He did so with lineups that would include some original members, but often new musicians as well including Cincinnati born guitarist Bruce Botts. “I’ve spent most of my life doing pretty much what musicians have to do,” Bruce notes. “Getting out and playing wherever I can, whenever I can. You know, go out for two weeks, then come back home, divide the money up, and when you come back, you find out you made twelve dollars. But you have to keep doing it if music is driving you.” Also a prolific songwriter, Bruce was not finding enough serious original musicians in the Queen City. He picked up and headed to San Francisco where he at first found the music scene to be about the same as it had been in Cincy. “It’s actually more difficult to get into clubs out in California. I did end up meeting someone who knew Starcastle and knew Gary, and one day we were walking past a store and my friend saw Gary in there. So I met him, we started talking and jamming together, and we hit it off.”

Gary and Bruce started writing together and performing at shows in the area, although they did not actually release any recordings. Eventually their band broke up, and Bruce headed back to the Midwest. In 1993, he received a call from Gary who had by that time returned to Champaign, and felt that they had some unfinished business. “He said that he wanted to do this thing, but wanted to do it right. He had all this material that had been written by the original guys, but had never been recorded, along with the music he and I had done together. He wanted to bring in everyone who has ever been part of the (Starcastle) family to be a part of this record.” Matt Stewart had also made some treks to San Francisco to work with another musician that he had previously known, and had actually moved to the Bay City before Gary had. He ended up back home in Champaign as well, and was also into the idea that Gary had about rekindling Starcastle. “There was just all this music we never got to record, and all this new stuff as well,” Matt remembers. “We just felt it was time to try to get something out there again.”

Bringing in almost all the original members, the band progressively started recording in 1995. Because of the members involvement with other bands, careers, or personal lives, as well as living in various parts of the U.S., the recording process was very elongated. There were many starts and stops as well as financial issues, and then just as the CD was getting closer to fruition, Gary Strater was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Gary fought valiantly, but it was soon obvious that he was going to lose his battle with the disease. He still managed to summon the courage and strength to finish nearly all the bass parts for the album before his passing in 2004. While grieving over Gary’s loss, the band knew that the bassist would want them to keep going and finish what they had started nearly a decade previously. “It was unbelievable that literally a few days before he died, Gary was still working on his bass tracks,” Bruce recalls. “As sick as he was, he would record a track, and then lay down on the couch until he regained his strength, and then record another track. In a way, that energized us and made us really ramp things up.” Matt notes that,” We were almost done with the album, and when (Gary) died it was at first very difficult for us to even go into the studio. But we had a focus and a vision, and actually we found a way for Gary’s passing to help inspire us to finish it.”

In 2005, Starcastle put the finishing touches on their first album in a quarter century “Song Of Times.” It took a little while longer, but the band also found a new label home with Progrock Records who released the CD in the Fall of 2006. Although no actual tour plans have formulated yet, in late April of 2007, the lineup featuring original members Matt Stewart, Steve Tassler and Steve Hagler, along with Bruce Botts and new members Woody Lingle on Bass, Rick Wakeman's son Oliver on keys, and vocalist Al Lewis will perform at the prestigious prog rock event Rites of Spring Festival in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Joining the bill with bands including Spock’s Beard, Pendragon, Carptree, and Rocket Scientists, the band is very much looking forward to playing their old and new tunes for the capacity crowd, and to win new fans as well as pleasing their faithful.  “There has been this amazing buzz on the album since it has been out,” Bruce notes. “We have been getting these reviews that have been just glowing. We have heard from new fans and younger kids who have been graduating towards more classic rock bands because they are starting to get into song crafting more.We are very excited about the chance to play it live for them now.”

After such a long journey, Starcastle deservedly has a chance to reclaim some of the glory and popularity they had in their early days. What will happen after RoSFest is still up in the air, and the band is keeping all of their options open for the future. “We definitely want to record some more since we have a lot more material,” Matt says. “Since we are all living in so many different cities, we are thinking about maybe playing in each others cities and seeing what will happen with that. We are all just so thankful that the fans have stayed with us through all the stops and starts. I think some of them thought we would never finish the album, but we always knew that we would get it done.”


Matt Stewart’s advice for musicians: “You have to have a really good focus of what you want to do. Play as much as you can, don’t sign anything automatically, and do whatever you can to get your music out there.”

Bruce Bott’s advice for musicians: “Do what you love and don’t quit, just keep going. This is all about sharing your passion with others and that’s the point of it so you just have to never give up on it.”

Division of Serge Entertainment Group